National education standards that even conservatives can love

After votes yesterday in Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, twenty-nine states have now embraced the new “Common Core” standards for primary and secondary education. Already, a majority—including red states such as South Carolina, Utah, and Oklahoma—have declared that they will use Common Core English language arts and math standards in their public schools. Yet this profound, and we think positive, shift in American education is occurring with little outcry from the right, save for a half-dozen libertarians who don’t much care for government to start with. How come?

It certainly helps that the new standards were created by a voluntary partnership of forty-eight states, not by the federal government. But it’s also true that the Common Core standards are remarkably strong, vastly better than the standards most states have developed independently over the past fifteen years. Yesterday we released a 370-page study that finds the Common Core standards to be clearly superior to the existing ELA standards of thirty-seven states and the existing math standards of thirty-nine. Expert reviewers gave the national standards an A-minus for math and a B-plus for English—marks that indicate high levels of rigor and clarity as well as plenty of solid content.

One reason the Common Core fared so well is that its authors eschewed the vague and politically correct nonsense that infected so many state standards (and earlier attempts at national standards). They expect students to master arithmetic and memorize their times tables; they promote the teaching of phonics in the early grades; they even expect all students to read and understand the country’s founding documents. The new standards aren’t perfect. Our reviewers found three jurisdictions that did better in ELA (California, Indiana, and—believe it or not—the District of Columbia), mostly because they better distinguish among different “genres” of literature and other writing. Another dozen states (including Massachusetts) are “too close to call,” meaning that their standards are about equal in content and rigor to the Common Core. But anybody worried that this national effort will dumb down what we expect young Americans to learn in school can relax, at least for now.

Anxiety will surely rise when school kids across the land begin (three or four years hence) to take tests linked to these standards, and even more when those test results start to determine promotion from fifth to sixth grade or graduation from high school. (The development of those tests will soon start, aided by $350 million of federal stimulus funds.) Without tests and results-based accountability, along with solid curricula, quality textbooks, and competent teaching, standards alone have no traction in real classrooms. Adopting good standards is like having a goal for your cholesterol; it doesn’t mean you will actually eat a healthy diet or live longer.

But when high expectations for schools and students are combined with smart implementation in thousands of classrooms, policymakers can move mountains. That’s the lesson we take from Massachusetts, which has established high standards, well-designed assessments, a tough-minded (yet humane) accountability system, rigorous certification requirements for teachers, and a challenging bar that students must clear to earn their diplomas. The Bay State has been making steady achievement gains in reading and math in both fourth and eighth grades.

That, of course, is why Massachusetts politicians and policy makers sparred over the proposal by state education commissioner Mitchell Chester to replace the state’s own standards and tests with the new national versions.

Until now, however, the vast majority of states have failed to adopt rigorous standards, much less to take actions geared to boosting pupil achievement. In 2007, we published a comparison of states’ “proficiency” expectations under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The results were dismaying: In some places, students could score below the 10th percentile nationally and still be considered “proficient.” In other locales, they had to reach the 77th percentile to wear the same label. And it wasn’t just that expectations varied, but that they varied almost randomly from place to place, grade to grade, and year to year.

Most Americans understand that this is not the way a big, modernized country on a competitive planet should operate its education system. Three years ago, an Education Next poll asked whether people favored “a single national standard and a single national test for all students in the United States? Or do you think that there should be different standards and tests in different states?”

It wasn’t even close. A whopping 73 percent of respondents wanted a single test, and Republicans were likelier to support this idea than Democrats. Those self-identifying as “extremely conservative” were by far the most enthusiastic about national testing: 88 percent of them favored the single test approach, versus 64 percent of liberals.

Conservatives generally favor setting a “single standard” for everybody. Setting different standards for different people—think affirmative action, for instance—is an idea most associated with the Left.

Yes, there are risks inherent in a national anything, particularly if the federal government clumsily tries to intervene. This is already evident: A number of states signed on to the “Common Core” standards at least in part to boost their chances of getting federal education dollars from Secretary Duncan’s “Race to the Top” competition.

But America faces larger risks in clinging to mediocre expectations for its schools and students. That’s why we favor the move toward quality national standards and a system of tests that will hold all students to the same expectations. And most conservatives seem to be on board. Who knew that this would be change they could believe in?

A version of this piece first appeared on National Review Online.

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